Adolescence is hard enough to go through, but several times harder for a parent who thinks the world of their child. That’s the backbone of Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Nil Battey Sannata, a paean to working mothers everywhere.
It’s a film that could’ve well been made by Nagesh Kukunoor in the ‘00s, a ‘heart-warming’ drama that aims high and lands somewhere in the middle. Well-intentioned to a fault, Nil Battey Sannata rides on a singularly quirky premise: a lower-class working mother, Chanda (Swara Bhaskar), returns to school in a bid to encourage her teenaged daughter Apeksha (Ria Shukla) to better her score in mathematics for her upcoming 10th standard board examination. Not only does she land up in the same school (believable since it must be the only one that is affordable in terms of fees as well as commute), but she also lands up in the same class.
Chanda makes ends meet by working as a domestic help in the home of a well-read, progressive lady (Ratna Pathak Shah, dependable as always) as well as working a shift at a local factory. Apeksha, on the other hand, is well in the throes of teenage angst. Despite terrible scores in all subjects, not just mathematics, she spends most of her time bunking school, watching TV and harbouring a crush on Ranbir Kapoor. Her justification: even if she does well, it’s not like her mother has the wherewithal to send her to college, and she is most likely going to end up a domestic help herself. As a further act of rebellion, she even refuses to learn how to cook.
To its credit, the film does a number of things fairly well. The absence of a father (or father figure) in her life is only hinted at; mercifully, the film spares us the embarrassment of including a pivotal scene that spells out how Apeksha’s attitude is related to this. Proceedings are also enlivened by Pankaj Tripathi, who sinks his talented teeth into the role of the nastily theatrical headmaster/maths professor Shrivastav, a turn that works wonderfully in this kind of film despite his occasional tendency to chew scenery.
But Nil Battey Sannata, despite all its attempts at sincerity, commits the cardinal sin of treating its school-going characters with a touch of condescension — a sin no film like this should commit. The script only takes the trouble to flesh out a few of Chanda and Apeksha’s classmates — an inseparable brother-sister duo (with the former sporting a hilarious bowl haircut) and the class topper who is (naturally) wise beyond his years. This, by itself, isn’t a problem — it’s how they’re portrayed in thought and action that is.
Consider a section in the film that shows how Chanda, after initially being the butt of jokes, quickly becomes one of the most popular ‘kids’ in class. At one point, Apekha, who is naturally mortified at the thought of her mother attending school, is shown to be the only kid sitting away from her, sulking, as she regales everyone else with… what? We don’t know because this scene, conveniently, is part of a musical montage.
Despite all its attempts at sincerity, the film commits the cardinal sin of treating its school-going characters with a touch of condescension — a sin no film like this should commit.
An earlier scene had shown how the classmates ask Chanda where she lives and note that she and Apeksha have the same last name, live in the same locality (Chanda then attempts to lie and cover it up, unconvincingly), AND seem to be carrying the exact same packed lunch. Throughout the film, in fact, no one questions why Apeksha very obviously avoids and even glowers at Chanda in school, even when her best friends are fully besotted with her mother. Now, I know these kids are bad at math, but we’re supposed to believe they can’t put two and two together? One only has to revisit last year’s brilliant Marathi film Killa or the endearing Tamil indie hit Kaaka Muttai to see that it is entirely possible to depict children as immature and sometimes naïve beings without treating them like crucibles of narrative convenience.
The scenes in school leave several questions unanswered. Chanda, with some help from Nerdy Topper Kid, starts to beat Apeksha at mathematics, infuriating the latter even further. Hard to swallow, since Chanda hasn’t been to school in several years (syllabus changes, anyone?), but one can let that go. But what about other subjects? Geography? Science? English? We don’t know since this seems to be a school that focuses mainly on mathematics and a few token Hindi classes (the latter mainly to set things up for a predictably sappy climax). Meanwhile, it seems like the entire staff is either a) in on the ‘secret’ and phenomenally good at maintaining poker faces; b) somehow unaware of what’s happening; or c) don’t really care either way (the likeliest explanation, since this is a government school).
Everything, then, rests on the performances of the mother and daughter, which go a long way in making the film watchable, despite its shortcomings. Bhaskar carries most of it on her shoulders, with a finely calibrated performance that balances badassery and vulnerability quite perfectly. I loved the moment in which she sticks her tongue out at a couple of high-handed security guards, showing us her inner child and breaking the dignified mother figure stereotype that Bollywood likes to exploit.
If anything, it’s the film that holds her back, either with its contrivances or by occasionally making her look a tad too well-turned-out to be completely convincing as a working-class woman in Agra. Either way, this is still fantastic work from a promising, intelligent actress who deserves more meaty roles such as this one.
Shukla lends able support, portraying the volatility of a 15-year-old with nuance. What’s heartening is that she comes across as a three-dimensional human being even though she’s essentially playing an ungrateful little brat. Or perhaps that’s just me trying to justify my teenaged transgressions.
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